The Myth of an 'Invisible Mediator': An Australian Case Study of English-Japanese Police Interpreting

Ikuko Nakane


Recent studies have challenged the assumption that the interpreter is an ‘invisible’ mediator and have demonstrated a departure from the ‘conduit’ role often assigned to interpreters in their professional ethics guidelines (e.g. Russell 2000, Wadensjö 1998, 2004; Yoshida 2007). In this paper, I address the issue of interpreter’s role as an invisible mediator through an examination of interactional ‘repairs’, one of the key aspects of interaction management mechanisms in the tradition of Conversation Analysis. The context of interpreting is Australian Federal Police interviews mediated by Japanese-English interpreters. While some repair sequences in interpreter-mediated police interviews followed common patterns of monolingual police interviews, there were also some features of repairs specific to interpreter-mediated discourse. In particular, due to the interpreting of each turn, in some cases, it is not always possible to ascertain whether it was the primary speaker’s turn or the interpreted version that was the source of ‘trouble’ leading to an interactional repair. The paper demonstrates interpreters’ vulnerability to being identified as the ‘troublemaker’ in repair sequences and consequential face-saving strategies. These strategies included modifying the primary speaker’s utterances or providing explanations for why a need to repair was perceived or why a repair sequence failed to rectify a problem. It is demonstrated that in engaging in these types of problem solving activities, interpreters at times shift roles, sometimes pushing the boundaries of their professional ethics. The paper argues that, while interpreters are often viewed as operating within a third ‘invisible’ space between interlocutors, this invisibility needs to be questioned. It is suggested that the expectation of a completely invisible, or neutral, third space is unrealistic, and that interpreters as cultural and linguistic mediators, and as social beings, continuously negotiate their identity with their clients while interpreting.

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